Fifty Shades Darker

Where to begin? Following the sordid events of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) is now single and working at a Seattle publishing house. Her ex, the self-proclaimed “sadist” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is still at large, sending her unwanted bouquets and expressing his interest. Rather than move to another city, change her name and file a restraining order, Steele welcomes Grey back in…it’s about as dumb a thing to do as buying a ticket for this movie.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that they get back together, since you wouldn’t have a movie if Steele turned down this always-frowning Eric Bana doppelganger. They hook up, partake in what was called in the 90’s “the nasty,” and attend a masquerade ball. Things immediately get interesting- Grey’s ex is stalking Steele and, coincidentally, Ilena (played by Kim Basinger) the woman who introduced Grey to S&M is also present. Then there’s the party itself, which resembles a more jovial, family friendly variation of the “Eyes Wide Shut” orgy.

While better made, more attractively shot and arguably more romantic than its predecessor, the first “Grey” was livelier and more intentionally funny. The initial intrigue of the lead characters has faded. Johnson and Dornan have been hitting the gym hard and appear nude often but they have no chemistry together. Sadly, their performances are as dull as this movie.

This time, the director is, astonishingly, James Foley, who made the great “Glengarry Glen Ross” and other stellar, adult-minded dramas. He’s made a great looking movie but he can’t elevate the lousy screenplay or the underwhelming heat of his stars. At least Foley can take comfort in knowing this isn’t his worst movie: that would be his woeful Madonna farce, “Who’s That Girl.”

Basinger’s appearance in this is a nod to her work in the great “Nine and a Half Weeks,” which is the smarter, sexier and far more daring erotic drama that “Fifty Shades of Grey” wanted to be. Unfortunately, Basinger isn’t in this enough and when she does appear, it’s not one of her better performances. Why did the Oscar winning actress agree to appear in this but turn down “Another Nine and  half Weeks”?

Here are some throwaway bits I loved: at one point, Johnson recites her mother’s great closing lines from “Working Girl” (which is to this movie what “Gigli” is to “The Godfather”). In Grey’s childhood bedroom, a poster for “The Chronicles of Riddick” hilariously looms large (instead of discussing their relationship, I wish, just once, Grey would tell Anastasia about the time Riddick defeated the Necromongers). Late in the movie, a tense, fairly well staged helicopter crash comes out of nowhere and suddenly jolts the movie to life. Basinger’s final scene has her suffering not one but two physical outbursts that are quite funny. Otherwise, as in the original, the strong points are the cinematography and the soundtrack. The rushed, highly choreographed sex scenes are set to loud pop tunes and play like Madonna “Erotica”-era MTV videos.

Not only does Johnson and her hairstyle resemble Anne Hathaway from “The Devil Wears Prada” but there’s the publishing house subplot that kind of mirrors that movie. Also, well into the credits is a “Back to the Future Part II”-style coming attractions trailer for next year’s “Fifty Shades Freed.” The trailer is treated like a “stinger” from a Marvel movie, though we have yet to see a film where Tony Stark shows Pepper Potts how nipple clamps work.

In the case of the first “Grey,” I was in the film’s corner for nearly an hour but found it to be in poor taste, alarmingly sexist and laughable. The sequel isn’t nearly as funny and is, no joke, on par with “Basic Instinct 2.”

Speaking of déjà vu, there’s a scene here where Steele removes her panties for Grey in a posh restaurant while seated at their table. Its identical to a scene in “Sliver” between Sharon Stone and William Baldwin. Dude, if you’re going to steal from a movie, don’t make it “Sliver.”

One and a Half Stars

originally published in MAUIWatch